Lessons Learned: The Reader’s Lullabye

I want to start putting up little snippets of the things I’ve learned while writing. Stuff that will probably only appeal to new writers. I’d also like to play beach volleyball on Mars. Hopefully these “Lessons Learned” will come more often than my volleyball matches.

Writing should be efficient and quick. The reader needs to slip through your story as if she or he were on a waterslide. The problem, of course, is that sometimes you have approximately fifty seven things to present to the reader in each paragraph. (Well, fifty eight if you weave subliminal manifestos in your sentences like I do). These fifty seven or so things are complex thoughts. Things that could really be spread over an entire page. Two pages. Dammit, I need an entire novel to talk about these fifty seven damn things that I’m trying to tell you. Can we just Skype instead of you reading my book? Because I really don’t think I can get these ideas across in a tiny little novel.

But, as novelists, we must. We must. That is the job of a novelist.

Our job is not to tell a story. Anyone can tell a story.

Our job is not to dazzle with prose–that is the job of a poet. Or a politician.

Our job is to present the reader with an experience. Our job is the simple task of carrying a 200 pound reader on our back and flying them to a distant place. Our job is to put them into a dream state on that journey, except the dream is our dream, one that we have crafted with meticulous care. And the trick… the trick is to keep them from finding out they are dreaming.

How do we do this? Simple. By not letting them know we are there. There are a thousand ways a writer can intrude on his story, but the one I’m talking about today is boredom. We cannot bore the reader awake. We need to keep our readers so absorbed in the dream that they don’t have time to worry about that uncomfortable shoulder blade pressing against their butt-cheek.

But sometimes, especially in fantasy stories, we have to describe something. Setting is important in fantasy, and without it, you just have weird historical fiction.So how do we provide a description without waking up our little dreamer? With butchery, friends. With hard, pipe-hitting butchery and dismemberment.

Here’s a passage I wrote just now, in its original form (apologies for any grammar mistakes or typos):

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foothills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”

So, at the start of that section, I have three paragraphs of description, and this set off all sorts of sirens and a woman’s computerized voice saying, “Warning. Warning. Warning. Warning…”

Muted sun. Pale walls. *yawn*  Hill. Towers. *snort. Smack lips*  Five rings. More sun. “What… what am I doing up here? Who the hell’s back am I on?”

Yeah, mission not accomplished. I don’t think the passages were horribly unwieldy, but I am paranoid about waking the reader. So, I made a subtle change to keep the dream unbroken:

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foorhills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, were five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.

Not fancy. Not glamorous. But something that breaks up the infodump with dialog. I might still cut a little more of the description. But if I don’t, I think I can still save the dream. If the reader starts snorting and waking, then hopefully the dialog will server as a lullabye.

Okay. That’s the snippet for tonight. Sleep well, my readers. And pleasant dreams.


Surprise! And other tools for writers.

Hello everyone. I know things have been silent on my end for a bit, but I have been hard at work on Emaculum. I’m on Episode 6 at the moment, so only two more to go before it gets released into the wild. Since I’ve been writing and thinking about writing quite a bit lately, I thought I’d talk about one of the most powerful tools writers have in their arsenal: Surprise.

***A word of warning: The first part of this piece has a spoiler for The Scourge. And the second has a spoiler for Nostrum. Proceed at your own peril.***

Not that sort of eargasm.

Have you ever had an eargasm? You know, that moment when you’re listening to a song and suddenly get chills? It could be a particular lyric, or a lilt of the singer’s voice. But often, it’s an unexpected change in tempo or pitch. A change-up, so to speak, that catches us by surprise.

Writing is very similar. In fact, pretty much all artistic media operates on similar principles. An artist should strive to keep his or her work fresh. To give his or her audience something new. If you’ve read my previous post on writing with flourish, then you’ll remember I spoke of Maximus, from Gladiator.

“I will give them something they’ve never seen before.”

Maximus should have been a writer, because that’s exactly what writers need to strive for. Anyone can write a story. But readers don’t just want to read a story. They want to be entertained. They want something they’ve never seen before. They want to be kept off balance, never knowing exactly what will happen next. Never allowed to get too comfortable. As George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) knows all too well, if you surprise and shock your readers, then they will truly fear for your protagonist.

But surprise is not just a way to scare the bejeesus out of readers. It’s also a way to keep the story fresh and fast paced and entertaining. I’ll use a few examples from my books, as I usually do, because I know them best and I’m too lazy to find passages in books by authors I love.

So here, first of all, is a scene from The Scourge, where Sir Edward, Sir Morgan, and Sir Tristan run up against an ocean of plaguers and Tristan gets caught in the horde. Edward thinks his friend has been torn apart. But the guilt and sorrow give way to joy when he sees Tristan rise up and climb into a tree. Cue the happy music. Smiles all around. But it’s precisely at those moments, when the sun is shining and the angels are singing, when surprise works best. You have to gouge the needle across the record so the happy music screeches to a halt:

I watch as Tristan pulls himself from the saddle and wraps his legs around the limb while the afflicted swipe at him. I watch as he flattens himself against the bottom of the branch. And I laugh as he gives two fingers to the mass of plaguers that reach for him and rip apart his horse. I must have kept my eyes open for too long because I feel them tearing up. I wipe at them and laugh again.

Tristan is alive.

“Stay in the tree!” I scream it as loudly as I can manage. Tristan rolls himself up onto the bough and sits. He can’t see me so he leans low to look through the downy branches and blows me a kiss. “Stay in the tree, you idiot!” I try not to smile as I shout to him. “We’ll come back for you. You’ll be safe in the tree!”

He holds up a thumb and I think he nods. And before I can respond, God smites the earth.

That’s what it sounds like. An explosion so unearthly that for a moment I am certain God has come down to earth to finish the job he started with this plague. The sound echoes across the hills so that I can’t tell where it came from. Plaguers near the willow fly into the air like daisies chopped by a sickle. One of them is split into pieces and each of the pieces flies in a different direction. Something skims off the grass with a resonant thud, then slams high into the willow branches.

There is silence. Even the plaguers stop moving.

Surprise! The story was settling into a happy lull and the danger faded. But fading danger equals fading tension, and tension is the heartbeat of any story. I actually tried to write that scene without the smiting stuff. Edward and Morgan were going to regroup and figure out how to get Tristan out of the tree, and possibly talk to the men and women they rescued. But the scene started to feel flat. And that’s another time when surprise can be used very effectively — when the story seems to be slowing down, or when the rest of the scene is becoming too predictable and not interesting enough. If your story is not interesting, you are dead in the water. Be anything you want as a writer, but never be boring. Surprise will often help you inject life into a slow scene. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said it best: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Here’s another surprise from the Scourge books. This one is in Nostrum (book 2). Everyone knows Tristan is a wise-ass, but he’s often the voice of reason, as well. Readers begin to expect him to provide that voice of reason. And when readers get too comfortable with something, it’s time to surprise them. In this scene, Edward and Tristan have found a group of villagers throwing a woman into a river. They say they are sacrificing her to a “dragon” that has been threatening the area. Their actions enrage Tristan, who enters lecture-mode.

Tristan looks at the bound woman in the river and raises his hands. He turns toward the crowd.

“When will you people stop acting like sheep? Your priest tells you there is a dragon in the area, so you allow him to tie up your women and throw them into the river? Is that what Christians do these days?”

He points to the woman in the Stour.

“This river is probably tidal. You will go home and, during the night, the river will rise and she will drown. Her body will be carried out to sea. You will come back in the morning and she will not be here, and this priest will tell you a dragon took her. And you will believe him, won’t you? And you will allow him to murder more of your women! If you have any left, that is. Do you people have no minds? Do you truly think a dragon simply swoops down and … Satan’s hairy cock! Holy Christ almighty! House of fucking Gemini!”

Tristan staggers backward as a dragon bursts from the forest and roars. I am too stunned to react, and so is everyone else. The dragon leaps into the river, hisses, then snatches up the woman in its toothy maw.

Surprise! This works on a few different levels, I think. The first is that, this time, Tristan is not the voice of reason. He is dead wrong, and so the events have defied the readers’ expectations. This also works, I think, because Tristan gets what he deserves for his smugness and preachiness. He often ridicules people of faith for preaching and trying to push their views on others, and here he is, doing the same thing. And it comes back to bite him. Literally. And lastly, I think it works in a rather obvious way; a goddamn dragon just leaped out of the forest in medieval England. Surprise!

Okay, so it’s not *truly* a dragon, but the reader doesn’t know that at the time. And so it’s a shock. Which electrifies the reader. It’s a change in pitch. A change-up. An eargasm for the mind. And hopefully it keeps the readers wanting more.

Oh, and one last thing, like any tool in the writer’s quiver, don’t overuse it. Surprise is just an occasional spark. A dash of red among the grays and greens. The singer’s voice breaking at the climax of the song. God smiting the earth on a happy summer day. If you do it too often, the reader then expects a surprise. And it’s hard to surprise a reader expecting a surprise. Except maybe not surprising the reader at all. And a story without surprises is like a loveless marriage between reader and writer.

And there are no eargasms in a loveless marriage.


Pausing from Emaculum …

. . . just a quick pause to tell everyone that I am still alive and still working on Emaculum, and to re-circulate an old interview I did for Melissa Olsen’s blog. Oh, and, hello!

Melissa Olsen: What’s the story behind the picture of you in a suit of armor?

Armor is actually making a comeback. It’s very popular in Venice and Paris. I expect that you’ll start seeing more and more of it in the U.S. very soon. The main problem is trying to accessorize in social situations. Do you use a full-jaw bevor for dinner with people you just met? Is a besegew appropriate for the theater? You really have to change your thinking, but I think it’s worth it. The reduction in violent crime alone is a great reason to try it.


Melissa Olsen: Do you read your reviews? Why or why not?

I’m fairly certain this woman has reviewed my book.

Yes. I read every one.  I think most writers are insecure. We crave positive feedback, thrive on it really. The negative stuff is awful, of course. I can stew over a negative review for days. But hopefully the really negative ones are few and far between. And I have come to realize that reviews reveal more about the people that write them than about the book itself.

I once read two reviews, back to back. One of them said that they loved that book, but that it wasn’t very fast paced. The other said that they liked it, but the pacing was too fast. Back to back. One after the other. I’ve also read reviews that say my story had too much description, and then a review that said the sparse descriptions weren’t enough. Oh, and there are the *really* weird ones. Ones where the reader writes two pages worth of hateful rants and insults me and my writing and everything about the book. When I read those, I think that surely I must have done something awful to them in real life. I mean, why else would they be so angry over a book? Luckily I don’t get many of those.

Melissa Olsen: Your novel The Scourge is about a zombie-like plague that spreads in the 14th century. How much were you influenced by the real-life Black Death?
I love the Middle Ages and I have since I was a child. When I decided to write a zombie story, I knew it had to be a medieval one. From there, it was an easy leap to the idea that any epidemic in the 14th century would have been compared to the plague. And though this new plague and the horrors it creates is a big part of the novel, the story is really about a knight who wants to find his wife, and the friends who are willing to risk their lives to help him. There is a lot of humor, a lot of emotion, and, yes, a lot of violence. But the medieval age was a violent time. The zombies (they are called ‘plaguers’ or ‘demons’ in the novel) are just another obstacle. Something that makes it more difficult for Sir Edward to find the woman he loves. There is quite a bit of religious symbolism in the book, and the zombies are also a big part of that.

Melissa Olsen: What’s your favorite place to work? What’s most likely to distract you (besides Facebook)?

My favorite place to work is on my glass desk, which faces a wall but has windows on either side. I am terribly easy to distract, so I have to make rules and goals for myself. I am not particularly good at sticking with those rules or meeting those goals, though. Which is why writing serials is a good thing for me. There are set deadlines for each episode. Deadlines I have to meet or everyone will hate me and I will have no friends (remember that thing I said about writers and insecurities?). The Internet is the greatest tool we writers have, and it is also our biggest downfall. It has boundless powers of information, and limitless ability to lure us away, like will-o-wisps. I spend a lot of time wandering the dark forest of cyberspace, chasing lights.

Melissa Olsen: What scene in your book was your favorite to write?

There have been a lot of scenes that I really enjoyed. Some of my favorites have to do with Tristan and Morgan, two characters who are complete opposites in ideology. There was a scene in The Scourge where a peddler is trying to trade holy relics for a horse. Morgan is overwhelmed by the thought of owning a relic and Tristan makes fun of him for it throughout the rest of the book. There is one relic in particular that Morgan traded for that caused great mirth in Tristan, and led to one of my favorite lines in the book. A lot of readers tell me they like that part too.

Another fun scene involves a mad king trying to force Tristan to put his hand into a vat of boiling oil. There’s a lot of tension in it, and we see Tristan’s humor fall away. You really get to see a different side to Tristan, who is usually laughing. I think those types of scenes, where the characters’ personalities really shine, are some of the most fun to write. But one of my all time favorite scenes is in episode 8 of the second book, The Scourge: Nostrum. Edward and Tristan are trying to escape from a tower cellar and their only option is a bit unsavory. Hilarity ensues.


Melissa Olsen: Someone recently asked me what character, from screen or page, I would most like to have dinner with. This became a surprisingly difficult question – apparently I like a lot of antiheroes. Who would you pick to share a meal?

That is a difficult question. There are a lot of historical figures I would love to have dinner with. Sir Edward Dallingridge, hero of The Scourge, would be the first. Edward, the Black Prince of England would be another. And William Marshall, a 12th century earl. Joan of Arc. Henry V, of course. And Eleanor of Aquitaine. Lots of people in history.

Okay, I’ve thought about it a bit. I would probably most like to have dinner with Tyrion, from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (Song of Ice and Fire series). He’s a little man with a huge brain and one of the funniest characters I have read. I’d also love to meet Captain Malcolm Reynolds, from Firefly (huge fan). Paul Atreides, from Dune. And, of course, Sir Tristan of Rye, from The Scourge.

Melissa Olsen: What kind of medieval weaponry are you best with?

I suppose I’m a sword guy. I have fenced for twenty five years, seven of those years quite seriously and competitively. And I spar occasionally with broadswords. I used to own a company that sold reproductions of historical weapons and armor, so I’ve done my share of stupid things with all manner of medieval steel. But the sword is the heart of the medieval tale. And there’s no weapon quite like it.

That’s the entirety of the interview. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back soon, promise!



Hello, and a Flourish

Hey everyone! Been enormously busy with Emaculum, but wanted to get to the surface and say hello. The third and final book of the Scourge is well under way, although I may not have it finished until March. Self-pubbing a book takes a little longer when you have to do all the work yourself. But I shouldn’t complain. You guys helped fund the publishing costs, so the whining stops right now.

I’ll be publishing a humorous short story I wrote very soon. It’s something a little different. A sort of modern-day fairy tale reminiscent of The Princess Bride. Some of you who pledged a certain amount in the Kickstarter campaign will be getting a free copy.

Lastly, I sometimes get people asking me questions about writing. I really don’t do enough about the craft of fiction here on my blog. I will try to do a little more of that, for those of you interested in that sort of thing. But I won’t flood the blog with it, for those of you who are not. So, to begin, I’m reprinting a post I wrote for Jeff Wheeler (of Muriwood fame).  The post is about writing with a touch of style. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you enjoy it!

The Flourish

So, you’ve been writing stories since high school. Or maybe you just started recently. You’ve got a Nanowrimo or two under your belt and you’re starting to find your groove. And now, you’ve decided to get serious about your writing. I applaud you for it. And I will give you one piece of advice that took me years to learn:

If you want to separate yourself from the crowd, you need flourish.

Readers can choose from thousands of different stories. Hundreds of thousands. But what they want is a story that will jump off the page. They want to be entertained. You are not a writer, you are a literary gladiator, thrilling the crowds as you knock down one sentence after the other.

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?”

The writers of the movie Gladiator might have been speaking through their protagonist with those lines. For those who haven’t seen Gladiator, Proximo is an older man, a former gladiator who won his freedom. He owns his own gladiators now, and he tells one of them (Maximus, the story’s protagonist) this:

 “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.”

That line has always resonated with me, because it applies to every type of creative writing there is. Do not write quickly or dispassionately. Thrill the crowd. Make them love you and you will win them forever.

Maximus takes Proximo’s words to heart and when he next marches into the arena, he takes on a handful of men and kills them in dramatic and acrobat fashion. After he does so, he holds his hands up to the crowd in a moment of self-loathing and asks, “Are you not entertained?”

We have to make those acrobatic kills with our writing, but fortunately we don’t have to hate ourselves for it. Because … well … this metaphor is falling apart isn’t it?

Okay, so, how do we, as writers, make the crowd love us?

We do it with flourish, my friends. We do it with flourish.

I know my own work best, so I will provide an example from my novel, The Scourge. The protagonist, a knight named Sir Edward, is trying to goad a mob of mindless, zombie-like demons to a battlefield where his allies are outnumbered. He hopes the demons will even the odds. Here’s a section from that scene:

They pour from the millhouse in an endless stream of madness, their noses flared to the scent. I nod to Tristan and Morgan. “The mint works.”

We trot our horses away from Corringham. The legions follow behind us, staggering and screaming.

Fairly straightforward, no? Any middling writer could churn that out. It’s solid and quick. But I don’t want to kill quickly. I want to thrill the crowd. I want flourish.

At this point I guess I should explain what flourish is. Here’s how I see it: It’s the crescendo of music that gets your heart racing while you watch a movie. It’s the magician throwing his arms into the air after a masterful trick. It’s the horse rearing and pawing at the sky while the cowboy waves his hat and whoops at the top of his lungs. It’s that touch of pizazz. It’s flourish.

I wanted flourish in my scene with Sir Edward, so for the paragraphs immediately following the example above, I let my protagonist take over. And he did his best to thrill the crowd:

 In France, I often led companies of men. At Nájera I commanded the entire left wing of our formation. But I have never led an entire army out to battle. It has been a secret desire of mine. To thunder toward the French with five thousand howling men at my back, our wind-whipped standard held high above my head.

I have only five or six hundred soldiers behind me tonight. They are men, women and children, and they are not particularly fast. But they howl with the unholy power of hell. Their lurching footsteps thunder upon the heaths behind me. I hold no standard, only a smoldering flowerpot, but I have achieved my secret desire. I ride toward the French with an army.

An army of the dead.

I tried to use the most dramatic language I could, without tipping into melodrama (hopefully I succeeded). I tried to build up the tension slowly, raise the excitement bit by bit like that crescendoing music I mentioned earlier.

But flourishes don’t always required long paragraphs. They can come in the little details, too. The tiny touches you add that that bring a symphony-finale to an idea. In my epic fantasy, The Beast of Maug Maurai, one of the main characters is larger than life. He’s a grizzled old hero named Black Murrogar and I wanted to make sure readers knew that he was something special. So I added a flourish:

Murrogar sat with Ulrean today on the final leg of their journey to Nuldryn Duchy. The old warrior wore a new crimson tabard over the old, blackened mail of the King’s army, the Laraytian Standards. He wasn’t a Standard anymore, but he would wear no other armor. He’d be buried in that blackened chain. If anything ever killed him.

Did you see it? The bulk of the paragraph does a decent job of describing Murrogar, but it’s the little bonus at the end that adds the flourish: “If anything ever killed him.” A small fanfare that makes the passage resonate in a way that description alone could not achieve. Just five little words that I hope will thrill the crowd.

Want another one from The Beast of Maug Maurai? Here are a few short sentences with a flourish at the end. The setup is that a group of soldiers are fighting creatures called thrulls, and some of the creatures try to escape by fleeing into a river called the Serinhult:

  Jjarnee Kruu fired bolt after bolt from his three crossbows. He rarely missed. Thrulls fell thrashing into the water and the Serinhult carried them to another world.

It’s a subtle thing here, but it’s a flourish. The thrulls could have fallen, thrashing, into the water and been carried downstream. But they weren’t. The Serinhult carried them to another world. Flourish. Crescendoing music. Happy cowboy.

Are you not entertained?


Guest Post: Bestselling Fantasy Author, Jeff Wheeler







Welcome readers!
Today I have a wonderful treat for you. The awesome and virtuous Jeff Wheeler, father of the Muirwood epic fantasy series, has visited my blog. Jeff is a truly inspiring human, a champion of goodness, and a brilliant storyteller. And I’m honored to have him here. Please check out his blog to learn more about this hugely successful writer.

Writing is a Solitary Ritual
By Jeff Wheeler

My parents often repeated the proverb that “Insanity is hereditary – you get it from your kids.” I’m not sure if writing is a gene that is part of my DNA or a mental illness, but whatever the case may be, my teenage daughter has started down the journey of being a writer. Watching her crave feedback from friends and family members brings back a lot of memories.

What I don’t have the heart to tell her (for fear of snuffing out the spark) is that writing is very much a solitary ritual. I’ve spent many hours, sometimes driving in my car, sometimes staring out the window, living in the worlds inside my head. As I walk to the café at work, it feels like I often bump into characters from books I’ve not even written yet, asking when their turn will be to surface from my imagination onto the page. Not yet, I have to tell them. Be patient. I’m still writing Book 3 of Mirrowen. You’ll get a turn someday. Maybe after the next Muirwood trilogy is finished.

Then there is the act of writing itself. Sometimes I’m in a hotel room on a business trip. Sometimes it’s on a plane. Most of the time, it’s in my den at home, door closed, white-noise machine hushing in the background to drown out the ambient sounds that invariably distract my concentration. When I’m in the “flow” of the moment, it’s like I’m breathing words onto the page as if an unseen muse sat behind my chair whispering the next line and then the next. Though I’m totally alone yet I feel that I’m inside the world I’m creating.

As I walk to the café at work, it feels like I often bump into characters from books I’ve not even written yet, asking when their turn will be to surface from my imagination onto the page. Not yet, I have to tell them. Be patient.

Then, of course, there is the lonely editing process. Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, I pore over the manuscript, using my instincts to snip a word here or substitute one there. I do very little re-writing afterwards. Even when the comments from my editors arrive, it’s a lonely path, sifting through the proper use of English grammar that still, to this day, baffles me. I’m forever grateful for the English majors whose job it is to know the difference between who’s, whose, and whom.

Then there is the patient (or not so patient) waiting of months from the time the book is finished, edited, arranged, narrated, before my readers even get to see the first words. By then, I’m knee-deep in my next creation, teasing out the conclusion of a trilogy or crafting the plot of a new one.

This sense of aloneness was put into a new light for me. I was recently at a week-long management workshop in Portland, Oregon. Some of the guest speakers included a senior manager at my company who climbed to the top of Mt Everest. He described reaching the summit and seeing a black sky, because he was up beyond the atmosphere. It was like touching a void. Another tale came from a a woman who talked about running the switchbacks of the Grand Canyon. While these feats are done in teams and often with fellow-travelers, the journey is inherently a lonely one. These are experiences that happen not just to the body, but also inside the mind. It reminded me of my experience as a writer and how much of it is mentally pushing myself forward.

There was no crowd to cheer him, no fanfare from his many admirers who did not even know he had finished the book.

The other day, I swapped e-mails with another writer—a peer who jousts with me on the Amazon rankings. He had just finished the final book of his series. There was no crowd to cheer him, no fanfare from his many admirers who did not even know he had finished the book. It was a poignant moment, a shared sense of the solitary rituals we writers experience.

As I watch my daughter intently scribbling more words in her composition book, I have to smile. She’s just starting her journey and living inside her head.


Jeff Wheeler is a writer from 7-10PM on Wednesday nights. The rest of the time, he works for Intel Corporation, is a husband and the father of five kids, and a leader in his local church. He lives in Rocklin, California. When he isn’t listening to books during his commute, he is dreaming up new stories to write. His books can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Jeff-Wheeler/e/B004SBCEK6

More information about how he became a writer is found on his website:


My Writing Process–Blog Tour

So i’m taking part in a round-robin blog tour in which writers talk about how they write what they write. It’s a lot of fun, and I want to thank fellow historical writer Adam Haviaras for inviting me. Adam has guest posted here before. He is a ridiculously well-schooled historian and archaeologist and his wonderful writing reflects this. Check out his blog and his books if you love historical fantasy.

Now, about my writing process . . .


What am I working on?
At the moment, I am writing the third and final book in The Scourge trilogy. I’m having a great time with this book and I think it might be the best of the three.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 I have a hard time speaking in broad terms about the genre of my work. I have two series, one that is epic fantasy and another that is historical fantasy. Both series are gritty and as realistic as I could make them. There are no unicorns in either book. Um. Okay, there’s a unicorn in the Scourge, but not a real one. There are no mages hurling fireballs and no elves. Definitely no elves. My work tends to be grounded in history, with bits of the paranormal here and there. The protagonists are usually disillusioned and dispirited, but with a fierce, burning passion that drives them ever onward. There is usually a bit of romance, and many times a bit of violence, and always a healthy dose of black humor.

Why do I write what I do?
I love history, particularly medieval history. I think contemporary people are boring. We dress in dull clothes. We talk about boring things. We have no strong convictions or traditions. Even our wars are boring. People in the Middle Ages didn’t have Wal-Mart or Movember, or even National Secretaries Day. They had craftsmen selling their wares. Their mustaches and beards were a lifelong thing. And a secretary was someone you entrusted with a deep, dark and powerful secret. Medieval soldiers wore armor and stared into the eyes of their enemies as they killed them. Women wore the most beautiful clothing in history and plotted with the best of conspirators. Politicians argued over which of them would lead the first rank of men into the enemy lines. Men fought for honor. Hell, men *had* honor (some men anyway). And horses. They all rode horses, for God’s sake. How can you not write about that sort of time period?

My muse cries when I don’t listen.

How does your writing process work?
I have to have inspiration to write. Something has to kindle the firewood in my brain. A good opening line. An interesting character. An image. The best of my works write themselves. The idea sustains itself. The firewood comes from thin air and the story burns like a furnace. The worst require work. Lots and lots of work.

I start most stories in the same way these days. I get an idea and think about it for a time. The protagonist is important. I need to know what type of person he or she is, and what he or she is trying to accomplish. Then, I throw everything I can at them, to keep them from accomplishing their goal. I come up with a general outline and maybe a scene outline, and then start writing. Sometimes half the scenes I planned actually make it into the book. Other times, only one or two make it.

If the story is sound, the motivation strong and the conflicts believable, then the story will tell itself. You have to listen while you write. Sometimes you step off the path, and the story will tell you to come back. If you don’t listen, you will get lost. If you do listen, you will find your story. Yeah, that’s really a vague and cheesy answer, isn’t it? But there’s truth in it. If you think about the story, really think, the answers will present themselves. The more you listen, the more ideas will come to you. Think about your story in your car. At the grocery store. In the shower. Odd things will pop into your head and you will kick at them to see if they are solid. And all those little, random ideas will come together in your novel in a way that you could never have thought of just sitting at your computer. I could talk about this for days, but I won’t. Just listen. That’s the most important part of writing. Listen. Yoda voice: Listen, you must.

Next week, my friends and fellow 47North writers, Richard Ellis Preston, Mark T. Barnes and Joseph Brassey will continue this blog tour. (I will host Joseph’s post here). Here’s all you need to know about them:

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Richard currently resides in California.

Mark Barnes was born in Sydney, Australia, in September of 1966. A strong athlete, he was also drawn to the arts at a young age, penning his first short story as a seven-year-old. He worked in finance and advertising before establishing himself in IT services management. Currently he owns and operates a freelance organizational change consultancy. In 2005, when Mark was selected to attend the Clarion South residential short story workshop, he began to write with the intention of making it more than a hobby. Since that time, Mark has published a number of short stories, worked as a freelance script editor, and has driven creative consultancy for a television series.

Joseph Brassey lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, son, and two cats. In his spare time, he trains in, and teaches, medieval martial arts to members of the armed forces. He has lived on both sides of the continental United States and has worked everywhere from a local newspaper to the frameshop of a crafts store to the smoke-belching interior of a house-siding factory with questionable safety policies.


Serial – Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

Hey everyone. I did a guest post on Lindsay Buroker’s blog and I received lots of questions about it, so I figured I would talk a little bit more about writing for Kindle Serials, here at my home blog.

First of all, I’d like to define exactly what is involved in serials, so we are all on the same page (screen, for you Kindlers).

I wrote a Kindle-Serial novel for 47North, called The Scourge. A Kindle Serial is a new type of novel that begins life as a series of episodes that are automatically (and periodically) downloaded onto Kindles (or other devices that have the Kindle app installed). A reader pays $1.99 for the novel, and one episode downloads to his or her device every two weeks until the novel is finished. The reader never has to pay for any other episodes. $1.99 covers the entire novel. You just get it a little bit at a time.

But you get the story as it’s written, so if you buy it now, you will get all episodes that have been released thus far, (we’re on episode 5 at the moment), and then you will get episode six on Tuesday, and episode 7 in two weeks, and episode 8 (the final episode) two weeks after that. Confused yet?

Here’s a good example: Let’s say you love The Walking Dead television series (guilty). So you decide you are going to buy the whole season 1. But let’s pretend season 1 is still airing. They are still showing episodes every week and the season isn’t finished. If it were a Kindle Serial, you would get every episode that has already aired, then you would start receiving each new episode at the same time as everyone else. Until the season is over. But you never have to pay for any other episode in Season 1 again. Make sense?

Once all the serial episodes are delivered (the novel is finished) it is no longer a Kindle Serial. 47North turns it into a standard property, which means The Scourge gets an ebook version, a print version, and an audiobook version, and the price goes up. So, in our analogy above, the entire season 1 of The Walking Dead  is over (all episodes have been aired), so it gets turned into a box set and you can watch it as often as you like. But unlike a box set of a tv show, if you paid for the serial as it was being written, you end up with all the episodes as an ebook and you don’t have to pay for the “box set”. Lucky you. Unless you want a print version or audiobook version of the “box set” in which case you would end this metaphor immediately.

So, that’s how the Kindle Serials work. Now, to answer a few other questions I’ve gotten concerning serials:

1. Yes, I have a standard publishing contract with 47North. They created the cover for me, provide copy editing, proofreading and some editorial direction. I received an advance for the book and will get royalties when the advance earns out. (Which it pretty much has already. Yay me.)

2. Yes, The price of the book as a Kindle Serial is fairly low. But the exposure I receive from Amazon is priceless. I am selling far more books with this title than I ever have with my independent title, and I get far more exposure. And, when it becomes a standard property of 47North, the price goes up. Win.

3. Yes, writing this way is difficult. There are many, many challenges, but there are also many, many rewards. I will post on those pros and cons in a couple of days.

4. Yes, working with 47North and Amazon Publishing is a joy. They allow me input into a lot of areas that other publishers never would. What sort of areas? Well, massive input into the what the cover will look like. Input into the marketing blurbs (including bio, synopsis, back cover blurb, and to whom it should be marketed). Their royalties are better than standard publisher royalties, and they pay on a quarterly basis (with ‘standard’ publishers you are lucky if you get paid every six months). And they know how to get things done quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality.

5. Yes, you receive email notification from Amazon when a new episode is available. And no, you don’t have a ton of little episodes cluttering up your Kindle. It is always just one book, it just grows bigger with each episode. Your place is still marked in the book, but you just have more to read. And your percentage read goes down.

Got questions on Kindle Serials or writing serials? Please let me know in the comments. This is a fascinating way to write and I enjoy talking about it.

That’s it for now. I’ll have an Episode 6 post a little later this week (Episode 6 comes out on Tuesday, by the way), then will post more about serials after that. Thanks for reading!